What Do You Do When Taste is an Unused Sense?

A walk in my neighborhood isn’t the place to test the last sense of our journey – taste.

The sidewalks in my 137-home development connect to the sidewalks of a development four times larger – a mishmash of single homes on small lots, single homes with detached garages linked by alleys, rows of townhomes, and even a few duplex townhomes sprinkled in.

And not a restaurant in sight or smell.

If I was adventuresome (and I have been), I could walk across a busy highway to a Mexican food truck that is parked in the corner of the gas station. Street tacos are the food item of choice, and a line always forms between 11:30 and 1:30 as local workers (mostly) drive in for their lunch hour.

But back on the sidewalks in my neighborhood, taste is a mostly unused sense.

Aside from sampling the lemonade of an aspiring young entrepreneur (whose aspirations lasted all of one day, apparently), there is nothing to engage the sense of taste in my neighborhood outside of my own home. I could crash a backyard party, but wouldn’t it be so much more fun to throw my own party and invite the neighborhood?

In other places around the country and around the world, it’s a much different picture. It may be restaurants old or new, food carts on the sidewalk, food truck gatherings, or festivals in the park with myriads of food choices – for many people, a walk around the block offers a delightful journey of the palate.

But like the other senses, is the sense of taste really located on the point of contact, our tongues and in our mouths?

According to The Fifth Sense, there is a common misperception that the word ‘taste’ refers to everything we experience when we eat or drink.  This isn’t actually true.

The word taste, or gustation, to give its full name, refers to what is detected by the taste cells, located on the front and back of the tongue and on the sides, back and roof of the mouth.  These receptor cells, or taste buds, bind with molecules from the food or drink being consumed and send signals to the brain.  The way our brains perceive these stimuli is what we refer to as taste, with there being five recognized basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami.

According to author Michael J. Gelb, for most of us, the opportunity to taste presents itself at least three times a day. But in the rush of our lives, it is often difficult to pay attention. It is all to easy to “grab a bite on the run” and to consume an entire meal without really tasting anything. Instead of the rush to wolf down your meal and move on, pause for a few moments before eating. Reflect on the origins of the meal you are about to enjoy. Aim to be 100 percent present as you taste the first bite of your food.

To really be present in the enjoyment of tasting, Gelb recommends the following comparative tasting exercise:

Buy three kinds of honey (e.g. orange blossom, wildflower, clover), open the jars, and smell each one for thirty seconds. Describe the aromas. Then taste each one in turn; hold half a teaspoonful in our mouth and swirl it around on your tongue. Take a sip of water between tastes to clear your palate. Describe the differences in aroma and taste.

Now try the same comparison process with three kinds of olive oil, chocolate, mushrooms, apples, bottle water, smoked salmon, grapes, or vanilla ice cream.

Comparative appreciation of food, like that of listening to music, will dramatically accelerate the development of your sense of taste.

And it’s a lot of fun, too…

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

and Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

Your Nose Knows

I have discovered that the sense of smell, like the other senses, is engaged differently by the calendar.

For instance, if I am walking in the spring, my first scent will most likely be growing things: grass, trees, and flowers the most likely sources. But walk out the same door in the fall, and the scent will be decaying and dead things, particularly the leaves of the trees: having served their growing season’s purpose, they slowly die, then drift down to the ground to be blown away or collected and disposed of.

This same concept applies to man-made objects, and in my neighborhood, happens every Thursday. That’s the day when our roll-away waste containers are lined up like soldiers, one, two, or three abreast, standing at attention (some at-ease) at the end of the driveway. Throughout the day, the garbage trucks come by to grab, dump, and replace the empty containers back in the driveway. So on Thursdays, any walk down the sidewalk of the neighborhood is inviting your nose to be a collector of the last week’s life, now trash. Even through the plastic trash bags and mostly-closed lids, the odors can be pervasive. Decaying food is often the main component, but for those families with little ones, the odor of food comes in a different scent! By the design of the collection machinery, the lids of empty containers remain open – to air out, but also to announce to any passerby the strongest odors of what was formerly occupying the container.

And it is at this moment that your nose knows – not only what was in the container a short while ago, but what that scent brings to your memories.

According to science, the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.  Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example.  This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.

Given the time of year, try this the next time you are walking through Target or an office supply store: Pick up a box of crayons, open the top, and take a deep breath. Most likely, you will be transported from the store aisle to elementary school, with memories of your new box of crayons comforting the uncertainty of a new classroom full of friends yet to be made.

So how does your nose know?

According to the National Institutes of Health, your sense of smell – like your sense of taste – is part of your chemosensory system, or the chemical senses.

Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor. Microscopic molecules released by substances around us—whether it’s coffee brewing or pine trees in a forest—stimulate these receptors. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.

Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. The first pathway is through your nostrils. The second pathway is through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the second channel. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can’t reach the sensory cells that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of your ability to enjoy a food’s flavor. In this way, your senses of smell and taste work closely together.

Without the olfactory sensory neurons, familiar flavors such as chocolate or oranges would be hard to distinguish. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Some people who go to the doctor because they think they’ve lost their sense of taste are surprised to learn that they’ve lost their sense of smell instead.

Your sense of smell is also influenced by something called the common chemical sense. This sense involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings help you sense irritating substances—such as the tear-inducing power of an onion—or the refreshing coolness of menthol.

And so all day, every day, you are confronted with a smorgasbord of smells. Your five million olfactory cells can sniff out one molecule of odor-causing substance in one part per trillion of air. And you take about 23,000 breaths per day processing about 440 cubic feet of scent-laden air.

But most people have a very limited vocabulary for describing aromatic experience: “It stinks” or “That smells good” are the most common references. If you want to pay attention with your nose, aim to increase your discrimination of and appreciation for smell by expanding your olfactory vocabulary.

Make “Smells” a Theme for a Day

Record what you smell and how it affects you through the course of a day. Seek out unusual or intense aromas. Linger in the cheese department of your favorite gourmet store. Drive to the country and walk through a barnyard. Inhale the aroma of all the herbs and spices in your kitchen. How does smell affect your moods? Your memory? Aim to find and record specific examples of aromas affecting your emotion or recall.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb

By prompting yourself to focus explicitly on scents and odors, you will most likely find yourself remembering the past while also developing a new appreciation for what your nose knows.

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

Leadership Lessons from the Sidewalk

In a recent post on walking unplugged, I mentioned that I would be walking the next day with my feet.

I wasn’t trying to be flippant – I was merely stating that your feet can tell you a lot about where you’re walking, and what you’re walking on, and in the process, you can learn a lot.

It brought to mind this post on my other website: Sometimes the Best Part of the Story is Under Your Feet.

With that going through my head, I began my walk – and it wasn’t long before I realized Leadership Lessons the sidewalk could teach me.

In a short, two-mile walk through my neighborhood, I felt and observed the following:

  • Raised Sidewalk – visible, growing tree roots: Leaders should always be looking for things that will help them grow and lift their capabilities.
  • Sunken Sidewalk – hidden sources of water: Leaders should be cautious of hidden things that will bring them down and stunt their capabilities.
  • New Sidewalk Section – replacing to make it functional again: As your leadership grows and matures, you can count on learning new ways to do some things better.
  • Clean Sidewalk – appearances matter: Leaders must present themselves in the best manner possible, which instills confidence.
  • Dirty, Stained Sidewalk – see above: Conversely, sloppy appearances give others pause.
  • Cracked Sidewalk – too heavy a load: Leaders aren’t super heroes, and must balance the “load” they carry.
  • Grass in Sidewalk – maybe lazy, but at least distracted: Leaders who allow interruptions won’t be able to focus.
  • Grass growing over the Sidewalk – know your boundaries: Leaders know that boundaries help focus attention and align teams.
  • Sidewalks – take you somewhere: Leaders don’t fly solo; they must take others with them.
  • Sidewalks – make your journey easier: Well-prepared leaders are in a better position to help others on the journey.
  • Sidewalks – make your journey safer: Leaders watch out for the safety and welfare of others.
  • Sidewalks – lift you above the road: Leaders must rise above their surroundings.

In their civic role, sidewalks play a vital purpose in city, town, and suburban life. As conduits for pedestrian movement and access, they enhance connectivity and promote walking.  Safe, accessible, and well-maintained sidewalks are a fundamental and necessary investment.

But for me, they provide great leadership lessons.

And of course, I couldn’t resist sharing Shel Silverstein’s most appropriate poem:

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”

― Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends